A Dunwoody resident advocated for better care for individuals with disabilities during a rally at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday. 

Philip Woody spoke about Georgia’s lack of quality care for residents living with disabilities on the South Wing Stairs in the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 28. The rally was intended to call for increased support for the disabled community within the state, with a focus on a piece of legislation from Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta). 

“…the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act … was signed into law by George H.W. Bush because it took a bold step,” Woody said. “Now we need Gov. Kemp and the General Assembly to do the same thing.” 

Philip Woody addresses a crowd at the Georgia State Capitol on Feb. 28.

Residents living with disabilities or caregivers for those individuals can apply for state-funded Medicaid waivers – the New Option Waiver Program and the Comprehensive Support Waiver Program – through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. These waivers are intended to help pay for support programs and community services for individuals with disabilities, but according to Woody, the state only funds waivers for a small fraction of people who need them every year. According to the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, that leaves a waitlist of about 7,000 people. 

Georgia has been in hot water when it comes to serving those with disabilities before. In 2010, the United States Justice Department entered into a settlement agreement with the state over a lawsuit which alleged that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by unlawfully segregating individuals with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities in state hospitals. The settlement required the state to begin moving people with disabilities out of those hospitals and into community-based programs. 

A spokesperson for the GDBHDD said the department has provided on average 709 COMP or NOW waivers per year since fiscal year 2017. In 2021, the spokesperson said they provided 569 waivers. The Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes money to fund 100 new slots for the Medicaid waiver programs, but advocates say this is not enough. Harrell’s bill, SB 208, would work to fully fund care for those still on the waiting list in five years. 

“A humane and civilized society cares for its most vulnerable citizens,” Harrell said. “As long as Georgia has a waiting list for NOW and COMP waivers, Georgia has failed to live up to this basic standard.” 

According to a spokesperson for Harrell’s office, the bill is still pending in the Senate, and Harrell has been working with the appropriations process in the House and Senate to try and fund more waivers beyond the extra 100 in the budget. 

Woody and his wife, Lisa Woody, have a 22-year-old son named Evan who fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 18 months old. Surrounded by individuals with disabilities and their family members and advocates, both parents spoke in support of the bill. 

“The blatant decision by Georgia elected officials to ignore the need for more NOW/COMP waivers is staggering,” Lisa said. “Please understand, if you help the parents, you help the child.” 

The Woodys said they have spoken with members of the Georgia General Assembly about the issue, but their response usually involves wondering where funding for the waivers will come from. Harrell spoke about possible ways the waitlist could be funded, including the state’s cigarette tax. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids – a nonprofit organization seeking to end tobacco use – Georgia ranks 50th in the nation for its cigarette tax, which is 37 cents per pack. 

“It is appropriate to use something like a cigarette tax to fund disability services,” Harrell said. “If Georgia supports life, then Georgia will find a way to support us.” 

This article has been corrected to include the correct year – 2023, not 2022 – for the state budget.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.